Grossman, Haika (1919–1996)
Grossman, Haika (1919–1996)
Polish-born Israeli who became a leader of the Jewish resistance in Bialystok and Vilna during WWII, then served in the Knesset from 1968 to 1988, often identifying with highly controversial causes. Name variations: Chaika or Chaike Grosman or Grossman; Chayke; Haikah; Haike; Haykah; Jaika; Khaya. Born in Bialystok, Poland, on November 20, 1919; died at Kibbutz Evron, Israel, May 26, 1996; had two sisters and one brother; married Meir Orkin; children: two daughters.
Born in Bialystok, Poland, in 1919, Haika Grossman was a Zionist from her earliest years, at the age of ten becoming a member of the Marxist-oriented Hashomer Hatzair movement. Immediately after the German occupation of Poland began in September 1939, she went to German-occupied Warsaw to help reorganize the Hashomer Hatzair for future underground work on a national basis. Although barely 20, she was quickly recognized as a leader and accepted an assignment to work in Vilna, a formerly Polish city which first became part of Lithuania in the fall of 1939 and was then annexed into the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940. At this point, Grossman could have escaped from Europe. On the eve of the war, she had been issued an exit visa for emigration to Palestine. Ignoring the dangers, she turned down the opportunity, convinced that she could achieve more for the Zionist cause in Europe rather than in the Middle East.
Grossman arrived in a Vilna (Vilno or Vilnius) that had long enjoyed an almost fabled reputation as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. With a Jewish population of more than 55,000, an invigorating cultural and political life flourished there despite poverty and anti-Semitism. Even before the war, Grossman had developed strong political beliefs based on left-wing Zionist Marxist (but never Communist) ideals. In her view, the Jewish national agenda must include not only the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine but also fight for conditions of social justice for everyone suffering from oppression. Politically astute as well as persuasive, Grossman became an important part of Vilna's Zionist youth landscape. Besides her own Hashomer Hatzair group, another Zionist youth unit, the Dror (Freedom) Halutz Organization, was active in Vilna, and the two organizations struggled to coordinate policies for the future. The onset of Soviet rule in mid-1940 brought the official suppression of Zionist and Jewish-nationalist activities, but Grossman and her colleagues succeeded in keeping their group functioning on an informal basis.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, led to the occupation of Vilna by Nazi forces two days later. While about 3,000 Jews were able to flee into Soviet territory to escape the Germans, Grossman decided to remain in Vilna, soon making plans to return to her German-occupied hometown of Bialystok. During her final months in Vilna, she experienced firsthand the savagery of Nazi rule as many thousands of Jews lost their lives at the nearby Ponary killing site.
With the German master plan for the total destruction of European Jews at this point still not finalized, many of Vilna's Jews believed they could somehow survive Nazi rule. The city's Jewish underground movement was, however, composed of realists, able to intuit that an entire people now stood on the brink of mass destruction. Having finally overcome its factionalism in which a persuasive Haika Grossman played an important role, the Vilna Jewish resistance coalition (Fareynegte Partizaner Organizatsye—United Partisan Organization) celebrated its birth on January 21, 1942. To mark the occasion, a warning was issued to the Jews of the world that "Hitler is plotting to annihilate all the Jews of Europe. It is the fate of the Jews of Lithuania to be the first in line.… It is true that we are weak and defenseless, but the only answer to the murder is self-defense."
Arriving back in Bialystok in early 1942, Grossman became the leader of Bialystok's small but enthusiastic Jewish underground organization, the "Antifascist Bialystok" cell. On many occasions she volunteered for dangerous courier missions to ghettoes in other cities, there to gather information, help raise morale, and bring precious weapons and other military supplies. A particularly perilous but important mission was her trip to Warsaw in April 1942. Here she reported to leaders of the Warsaw Jewish underground on developments in Vilna and Bialystok. Grossman returned to Bialystok satisfied with her achievements, which included the receipt of funds to purchase weapons. Taking great risks, she was able to purchase weapons not only from the Polish underground but even from corrupt German soldiers.
Contacts between the Bialystok and Vilna underground organizations, and the outside world in general, were made possible not only because of the courageous acts of members of both groups, but also because of the remarkable assistance rendered to these groups by Anton Schmid (1900–1942), a Wehrmacht sergeant who not only rescued Jews but became an active member of the Jewish underground; Schmid's activities were eventually discovered, and he was executed on April 13, 1942. Overcoming numerous obstacles, by August 1942 Haika Grossman and Commander Adek Boraks had finally been able to establish a united Jewish resistance front in the ghetto of Bialystok.
With blonde hair and blue eyes, Grossman relied on forged papers to pose as a Polish woman. Along with five other young women of Bialystok's Jewish resistance, Marila Ruziecka, Liza Czapnik, Hasya Bielicka-Borenstein, Ana Rud , and Bronka Winicki (Klibanski), Grossman was able to build up a small but determined resistance movement both within the city of Bialystok and in the nearby forests where bands of armed Jewish partisans were growing in both numbers and determination.
Diminutive in stature but fearless and well-versed in underground work, Grossman had to deal not only with the Germans, but with a Polish population that was concerned with its own real sufferings and thus largely indifferent or even hostile to the Jewish community's plight. She was also deeply frustrated by the majority of Jews who continued to hold onto illusions about their chances for survival. Many dismissed stories of death camps and a general Nazi plan of genocide almost to the very end. Even when this was no longer possible, some still found solace in a rumor that German forces intended to destroy every remnant of Jewry except for a dozen selected individuals who would then be bussed from place to place as examples of the exotic species that had once existed in plentiful numbers. Decades later, Grossman noted, "We all thought we would get on that bus."
The year 1943 was to be tragic for the Jews of Bialystok. From February 5 to 12, the Nazis initiated an Aktion in the ghetto that resulted in 2,000 Jews being shot on the spot and five times that number being deported to the Treblinka extermination camp. During this period, Grossman's colleague, Adek Boraks, was captured and sent to Treblinka. In April 1943, the resistance forces of the Warsaw ghetto rose in revolt, a doomed but glorious page of Jewish defiance against the Nazis. In Bialystok, many continued to hope that they might survive by not offering resistance to the German forces, but on the night of August 15–16, 1943, the Bialystok ghetto, which still contained about 30,000 frightened and malnourished Jews, was surrounded by heavily armed German soldiers, SS men and Ukrainian auxiliary forces.
On the morning of August 16, the Jewish Council posted wall announcements ordering the entire ghetto population to report immediately for "evacuation." For months, the Jewish underground had been preparing for this day with a detailed plan as well as the creation of arms caches in strategic locations. At eight that morning, the underground's messengers appeared on every corner of the ghetto, exhorting the population not to follow the orders of the Jewish Council and the Germans: "Jews, don't go of your own will. This is not an evacuation to Lublin. Every time they take anyone from the Ghetto it means death. Don't go! Hide yourself! Fight with everything that comes to hand!"
Now the moment the underground had long prepared for was finally at hand. Following their predetermined plans, the fighters began their revolt precisely at 10:00 am on August 16. Surprised and enraged, the Germans soon brought in heavily armed units that included armored cars
and tanks. The Jewish fighters of Bialystok had only a small number of weapons at their disposal, but still they fought for five days, from August 16 through August 20. Each day, more than 300 Jewish women and men died. The fighters knew from the start that their struggle was doomed, but their deepest disappointment stemmed from the fact that they were able to mobilize only a small fraction of the ghetto population to engage in acts of resistance or even make systematic attempts to flee the ghetto. "Our fighters and our positions were only isolated islands in a desolated, lonely Ghetto," wrote Grossman. "We didn't have the masses behind us."
On August 20, the Germans and their Ukrainian allies celebrated their "victory" over the Bialystok ghetto. Miraculously, a handful of Jewish partisans, including Grossman, were able to live through an inferno of death. At the end of the uprising, having seen bullets hit walls only a few millimeters away, she found herself covered "[f]rom head to foot… with blood and mud." As part of a pitifully small group of fellow survivors, she managed to elude the enemy and was able to join up with a Jewish partisan unit operating in the nearby forest. For a time Grossman and her group maintained contact with the few remaining Jews in the town, supplying them with weapons and medical supplies. Her partisan group grew in size and experience, and even attracted a handful of Germans grown hostile to Nazism. Grossman and her colleagues re-entered Bialystok in August 1944 as part of the liberating Soviet forces, but virtually all of the Jewish population had vanished forever; the "sad victors" could only find eerily empty houses in what had been the ghetto.
The end of the war in the spring of 1945 revealed the full extent of Jewish losses in Poland. More than 90% of the prewar Jewish population of three million had perished, murdered by the Nazis and their allies. Many of the survivors wished to leave bloodstained Europe behind, but their path was blocked by the British who controlled Palestine, and other nations which felt uneasy when faced with the prospects of absorbing refugees. The personal losses suffered by Haika Grossman were staggering but typical of her generation: her father had been shot, while her mother had died at the Maidanek death camp; her brother had lost his life in combat while on active duty in a unit of the Soviet armed forces. Determined to move on, Grossman took various jobs in Jewish survivor organizations. Much of her work was involved in coordinating the departure of Poland's rapidly dwindling Jewish population. Only when it was clear that the most pressing needs had been met did she finally decide to immigrate to Israel in 1948.
Soon after her arrival in Israel in May 1948, Grossman became a member of Kibbutz Evron, a settlement affiliated to the Hashomer Hatzair movement. She married Meir Orkin, a childhood friend from Bialystok, and had two daughters. As independent in spirit as ever, Grossman took the almost unheard-of step of retaining her maiden name, not so much to assert her feminism as to accept the fact that her resistance exploits had already earned her a place in Jewish history. In 1968, after many years of local political activities, she was elected to the Israeli Knesset (parliament) as a representative of the far-left Mapam Party. She was re-elected several times, serving from 1968 to 1981 and again from 1984 through 1988. Grossman served in the social affairs committee and was known to both her political friends and foes as a fiery orator (speaking in her Yiddish-accented Hebrew), always prepared to defend the rights of the poor and weak. In the last two years of her Knesset tenure, she served as that body's deputy speaker.
Never one to hide behind diplomatic language, Grossman chose to disagree on countless occasions with those she believed were in the wrong. Although as a Holocaust survivor and heroine from wartime Poland who played a central role in annual commemorations of the Shoa and the Warsaw ghetto uprising, she made no attempt to hide her resentment of the tendency of politicians, including Prime Minister Menachem Begin, to evoke memories of those horrors to justify current Israeli policies, including the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. On that occasion, she told the prime minister, who believed the invasion had saved Israel from Arab annihilation: "Return to reality! We are not in the Warsaw ghetto, we are in the State of Israel."
Responding in 1992 to a question posed by her German friend Ingrid Strobl if she did not sometimes yearn to forget what she had seen and experienced during the Holocaust, Grossman noted: "It is not a matter of artificially keeping memories of those days alive within myself, or that I always find myself living in the past. I have been very active in my nation's public life and have been deeply involved in all aspects of the people's problems here. But what happened in the past will always remain there in the background, it cannot be extinguished. It makes no sense to try to suppress it—and I have no desire to do so."
An energetic supporter of Arab rights, she spoke out in favor of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza at a time when such an idea was less than popular even among some of her ideological friends on the Zionist Left. Maintaining her global perspective on matters of right and justice and unconcerned about the controversial aspects of the trip, she was a member of an Israeli delegation that visited beleaguered Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua in December 1984. Always alert to the threat of anti-Semitism around the world, she responded in June 1985 to stories that passengers with Jewish-sounding names had been separated from others aboard a hijacked TWA jetliner by saying that these reports had served to "send shivers through me."
In 1993, while a guest of honor at an Arab village, Grossman tripped and fell down a steep staircase. She slipped into a coma, never recovering consciousness, and died in the retirement home at Kibbutz Evron on May 26, 1996. In his message of sympathy to her family, Prime Minister Shimon Peres noted that Grossman's remarkable life "symbolized the strength and rebirth of the Jewish people." At a memorial service held in Tel Aviv on July 2, hundreds paid their respects. Those on hand included her political allies from the Mapam Party, historians including Holocaust scholar Israel Gutman, and close friends and fellow survivors from the war years including Hasya Bielicka-Borenstein. At Haika Grossman's funeral, held at Kibbutz Evron, a broad spectrum of Israeli life could be seen including young people she befriended over the years, Israeli president Ezer Weizman, her trusted chauffeur, the Palestinian mayor of the neighboring Arab village, as well as a representative of the Likud Party, who had differed sharply with Grossman on many political issues but respected her. At the conclusion, those present sang the anthem of the Jewish resistance both in Yiddish and Hebrew, symbolically linking the "old" and "new" lives of Haika Grossman in Poland and Israel.
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Bender, Sarah. "From Underground to Armed Stuggle—The Resistance Movement in the Bialystok Ghetto," in Yad Vashem Studies. Vol. 23, 1993, pp. 145–171.
Freedland, Michael. "The Faith of a Ghetto Fighter: Haika Grossman," in The Guardian [London]. June 14, 1996, p. 18.
Grossman, Chaika. The Underground Army: Fighters of the Bialystok Ghetto. Translated by Shmuel Beeri. NY: Holocaust Library, 1988.
Gutman, Israel. Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
Gutman, Yisrael. The Jews of Warsaw, 1939–1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt. Translated by Ina Friedman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
"Haike Grossman," in Daily Telegraph [London]. June 27, 1996, p. 17.
"An Israeli Delegation Has Visited Nicaragua," in Latin American Weekly Report. December 14, 1984.
Kowalski, Isaac, ed. Anthology on Armed Jewish Resistance. 2nd rev. ed. 3 vols. Brooklyn, NY: Jewish Combatants Publishers House, 1986–1987.
Strobl, Ingrid. "'Mir zeynen do': Partisanin, Pionierin, Politikerin: Israel nahm Abschied von Chaika Grossman," in Allgemeine jüdische Wochenzeitung. No. 14. July 11, 1996, p. 3.
——. "Sag nie, du gehst den lezten Weg": Frauen im bewaffneten Widerstand gegen Faschismus und deutsche Besatzung. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1989.
Syrkin, Marie. Blessed is the Match: The Story of Jewish Resistance. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1976.
Strobl, Ingrid. "Mir zeynen do!" Der Ghettoaufstand und die Partisaninnen von Bialystok, German documentary film, Cologne, 1992.
John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia